How to Read a Hollywood Release (Part 1)

Who wants to spend $15 for no reason? Now, because of this handy guide, by knowing nothing more than a film’s release date, you can automatically gauge the quality of that film.

See that? Leading with the pertinent information. I hate it. I feel like a tool. As such, I’m now going to spend paragraphs telling you nothing that has to do with my main point. Because fuck everyone else.

My point here, though, (which I won’t actually be getting to for a while) is that as long as you know a film’s release date, you know, barebones, everything you need to know about that film in order to, within a very accurate range, gauge the quality of that film. Of course, there are anomalies, but whatever. There are rules to every exception. Also, I say barebones because, knowing a few more choice details about the film can help you to more accurately place it. It’s like gender before race and all that other stuff. Since it being a movie means we’re dealing with human. This is that first dot that separates it from the other dots before we add sparkles and shit. My theory — the Bedazzler of film judgment.

Just knowing a film comes out in October isn’t enough. It is, but it also isn’t. It depends on your level of interest, really. Or the month in question. What I’m ultimately going to do here is provide you a very simple little rubric to accurately gauge the quality of the film in question in four very simple steps. Ultimately being eventually and simple being — well, simple. I’m actually kind of amazed at that part myself.

It’s a nice skill to have handy. Not so much a skill as — knowledge. I’m about to drop knowledge on you. It’s not really science. Science is something we dropped on Japan during World War II — twice. I’m about to drop the knowledge bomb on you. Its side effects are knowing more. So, much better than radiation.

This is my gift to you. Showing you how to read a Hollywood release. It’s not quite a Porsche and not quite herpes. You knew what you were getting when we started this relationship.

After following my rubric, you will know, within a pretty accurate range, the quality of the film you’re using it for, which then feeds into the difference between what it’s alleged quality is, how much money it’s probably going to make, and what the studio’s expectations are the film, as in, how much they think it’s going to make and what they think the quality is. It’s a very useful tool to have. And, like a lot of things I teach, is useless something that can make you seem smart in the right situation. And, probably, is something that most other people don’t (or don’t care to) talk about. Because people are either boring, stupid, or unwilling to say what we’re all thinking. I’m at least one of those three things. And in my way of thinking, if you’re one of them, you’re most certainly not another. And very usually are the third thing.

Normally when you hear about a movie — pre-trailer or post-trailer — the first things you hear about it are its star and its genre. Like, “Hey, you hear about the Coen brothers western with Jeff Bridges?” Of course, there’s source material in that example, so, most people would cite the fact that it’s a True Grit “remake,” but I’m assuming an intelligence level of the average American — not much. This is when you find out about something that’s coming out — which in this day and age you do seven different times. That is, when the studio announces they’re making it, then, when the studio casts the star and/or director, which may be included in step one or again when they recast (because most films are routinely announced five to seven years in advance now), then, when they start shooting and pick a release date — all of this is at least two or more years before the actual movie comes out, if it’s big enough — then, when they release a teaser trailer, then, when they release the actual trailer — that’s five — then, when they start doing press for the movie, which for simplicity’s sake I’ll include the billboards and shit as well as the interviews and TV spots (which, most of that starts at least six months in advance, and even up to three months afterward), and finally when the blitz of advertisement happens in the two weeks before it comes out. My rubric is useful any time after step two. As long as the film has a release date and is in post-production (i.e. almost certain to come out on the actual date it’s advertised), then you can gauge it.

Knowing about who’s in it and what the trailer looks like is more an alternate path to mine. That’s a path you follow anyway. Mine is more of an alternative to that, or something you do alongside of it. Sometimes all it takes is a trailer. Or, in my case, a star and a title. Samuel Jackson in a movie called Snakes on a Plane? Done. Nicolas Cage in anything? Done. However, for anything else, and even for films you know you’re going to see, you can use my rubric as a way to measure the film’s quality. Keep in mind, I’m talking solely of quality, and maybe whether or not you decide to see it, and not what you’ll think of it. We all go see shitty movies knowing they’re gonna be shitty, but we (sometimes) enjoy them anyway. My rubric does not factor in personal taste. X factors are some of my favorite things, and I love things that fuck with rules indiscriminately and without logic, so my rule is merely a gauge of objective quality of film. And a way to judge whether or not you really want to plunk down $40 to go see it.

Nobody wants to spend a ridiculous amount of money to buy a ticket for a film that ends up sucking. Especially when you knew it might and wanted it not to. It’s okay if you’re willing and it ends up sucking and you’re like, “yeah. That’s a shame.” I’m talking about when you aren’t sure about whether or not you want to go see something and don’t want to go if its gonna suck. You want as many pieces of information at your disposal as possible. And in the cases where my rubric is most applicable, critics are not the final say. Usually they are. It’s some potential Oscar movie they’ve been talking about for months and months, and you think it’s gonna suck but everyone else thinks it’ll be the best movie of the year, and then the critics get a hold of it and tear it apart like a white girl in a lion’s den, and then you feel better. You think, “Wow, now I don’t actually have to go see it.” In other cases, it’s not so crystal clear. It’s some action movie that comes out in March. And you’re not sure if it’ll be entertaining or not, but you know, when the critics get it they’re gonna give it bad reviews out of necessity. And then they do. So, now what? Do you still go or not? You think you might like it even though the critics didn’t, but there weren’t enough good reviews to sway you. Do you still want to plunk down $85 to go to the theater and see the movie? And that’s where my rubric comes in. After using it, and then basing what the trailer looked like and who’s in it, you’ll know if you’re going to it or not, who you’re going with, and whether or not you’ll be in an altered state of consciousness for it. You’ll know whether or not you’re gonna spend that $198 or save it for something more worth the time — like a happy ending. And that’s what it is, my rubric. It’s about judging a movie by its cover charge.

What I’m going to do, is use last year’s film calendar (Wikipedia’s 2010 in film is my go-to release calendar) to show how my method — which I haven’t even told you yet. See how interesting I am that I can keep you reading this long without actually saying anything? — can be an accurate way to gauge a film’s quality.

(Wide releases only. The waters are too murky to get into the limited releases. There, there be sharks).

The criteria for pre-judging a film (after all, Hollywood is based on prejudice, one way or another. And that’s only a small shot at Disney), go as follows:

  1. The month it is released.
  2. What it is up against.
  3. If it was pushed or not.
  4. Its genre/Awards potential. Past or present tense.

And that’s without even going by what it’s about and who’s in it. That’s all ancillary. That’s your final go-to. That’s usually what you end on — “Well, Matt Damon is in it, so at the very least I’ll see it for him.” This is more like, “Yeah, Robin Williams is in it, but, he’s really hit or miss. And the trailer sucked. But I still think it could be good. Or at the very least entertaining” And then you’re like, “Well, it’s out in March, which means it’ll probably not be good but could be. At least it’s not February or January. It’s up against an animated kids movie, which means they’re looking to get an older audience, and it means it might actually be a bit more raunchy than the trailer suggests. It wasn’t pushed, so it’s a straight March release. (Mike note: I’ll tell you what that implies later.) And it’s almost certainly not winning any awards, so — probably not. I’d rather not spend $430 to go see this movie.” Also, just to make things easier — you don’t always need to use this rubric. It’s fun, but, if you watch a trailer for a Robin Williams movie and see the set up with standard stupid bad slapstick gags — like License to Wed — you pretty much know it’s going to suck without all this doing. But, if you take the rubric and apply it to films that have already come out, you’ll find that it’s scarily accurate at judging quality. (Note: Not what you think about it. Objective quality.)

Let’s start with #1. The most basic way to gauge a film is its release date. Example:

Transformers 3 is being released in July. July is typically your month of big-budget, tentpole franchises. Conversely, The Fighter was released on December 10th. What gets released that time? Oscar films. Very simple. Right? Right. Left right left. Up. Freeze missile.

Sometimes a film may appear to defy its release date. That’s when you use #2 and #3. Also important to point out is that there are some franchises that defy release date. Both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises have discovered the pre-Thanksgiving November release date. Normally November is your month for Oscar films and films placed specifically to take the weekend and absorb all the money that isn’t being made by those low-budget Oscar films. What was out in theaters the same week as No Country for Old Men? Beowulf.

A film like Harry Potter is destined to make money no matter when it is released. And quality is never subjective to release date in these cases. Franchises generally have their own mark of quality in relation to other films within the franchise. However, because Potter and Twilight have been passing that week in November back and forth the past few years, it’s starting to become recognized as a good week for films of that sort, so, like every new thing in Hollywood, it’s soon to be absorbed and become part of the machine.

That (for now) anomaly out of the way, we move to #2. If a film doesn’t seem to make sense being released in a certain month, its often helpful to look at what it is going up against. A good example is the one I used earlier, Beowulf. A big CG movie such as that would seem out of place in November. Yet, epic German poems aren’t exactly the kind of source material that scream “Summer release” (clearly that distinction falls onto Hasbro toys and Will Smith). Plus, knowing that weekend (and adjacent weekends as well) will be filled with smaller films looking to get Oscar attention allows a, I’m not going to say bad film, but more of a, film out of its place, to make more money than if it were released during the month it would seem best fit.

Number 3. Sometimes a film is pushed due to traffic, quality, or just sheer, “we think it’ll make more money at this other date.” Example 1: The Princess and the Frog was originally scheduled to be released Thanksgiving Day 2009. However, three weeks before Thanksgiving, A Christmas Carol was making lots of money at the box office, 2012 opened huge, Twilight was to be released the next weekend, and some little film called The Blind Side was starting to make waves around town. Not to mention the fact that Thanksgiving Day was populated with other films like Ninja Assassin and Old Dogs. Despite the fact that the film was a Disney animated (classical 2D, hand-drawn animation, no less), there was no way that film would have done as well is it were released alongside all those other films. Let’s also not forget the charges of racism that had plagued the film from the beginning (Disney thought they were going ahead of the curve (they must have thought it was 1967) by having their first black princess – then they went and set the film in New Orleans, made every character a racial stereotype, and threw in a Cajun voodoo priestess for good measure. And that, my friends, is Hollywood, which, while being totally true, also hurt the films potential box office potential. Who’s going to take their child to see a racist film before hearing that it’s actually pretty good and got good reviews? So they pushed it to December. That’s traffic (and to a lesser extent, quality).

Now — quality. My favorite example of the bunch. This is where the examples most include one of my favorite actors, Nicolas Cage. Nic Cage films get pushed more often than nuns do in grade school jokes. They’re all for varying reasons, but let’s stick to the quality one, since that’s what I’m talking about right now. This example will be the just-released Season of the Witch. The film was meant to be released last April. Secondary reasons to this film being pushed were, as I like to call it, a symptom known as “too much Cage.” For me, there can never be enough Cage. I support anything the man has ever done, and with the exception of Bangkok Dangerous, I’ve actually liked all of the live-action films he’s released in the past decade (by liked, I mean, at least 3 stars on Netflix). However, not everyone shares my pro-Cageness.

A funny side story. A fellow film major at Wesleyan went up to Jeanine (that’s Jeanine Basinger, head of the film department. If you know me, you know Jeanine) and asked, “How come I have such a soft spot for Nicolas Cage?” And without missing a beat, Jeanine said, “That’s because your soft spot,” pointing to his head, “is in here.”

I won’t get further into why people don’t like the Cage, because it boggles my mind like, well, Cranium, but “too much Cage” meant that, after a half-year that included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Kick-Ass, three Cage films in four months was just too much awesome for the American public. Also, the film was terrible. (And amazing!)

I say the film was terrible because – well, let’s pause to say, the film was about Cage as a medieval knight transporting a suspected witch, who is thought to be the source of the black plague, to be killed, and over the course of the journey, the witch slowly starts killing everyone involved in the journey. Awesome, right? I know. That alone should tell you where this film would normally be released. However, they sent the film in for not just one round, but two rounds of reshoots. Reshoots generally mean structural problems, story problems, and just plain, “this film is worse than we thought. And we weren’t expecting much.” So the reshoots, along with it not having a release date before finally being slapped with a January one mean, huge quality issues. One small note before moving on, the date also means that we now have four Cage films set to be released in 2011, two of which coming before March 1st (Drive Angry being the other one). I believe I speak for everyone when I say, goody gumdrops.

Number three of number two (ya follow?) the, “we’ll make more money if we release it this other time.” My example for this, Shutter Island. Shutter Island was supposed to be released October 2009. It was pushed to February 2010. Paramount says this was because they had Oscar campaigns going for Up in the Air, The Lovely Bones and Star Trek. Two of them failed to make Best Picture nominations (only one of them deserved to), though Star Trek did well with tech noms, and won Best Makeup – why, I have no idea — and Up in the Air peaked way too early and lost the only award it was thought to have in the bag (Adapted Screenplay — though we’re all pretty sure it has something to do with racism). So, on an awards level, it’s a questionable decision. It just missed out on a Best Picture nomination last year, when the card was stacked with great films. It would have been a shoo-in last year, when the nominees sucked. However, financially, it was a genius decision. It was the biggest opening of both Marty and Leo’s career. It made $128 million and almost outgrossed The Departed. So if a film like Shutter Island is released in February, where it appears to be a mark of low quality, it helps to look at the fact that it was pushed from October, making it a moneymaking decision and not a quality one. Plus the film was great.

It’s like running a film through filters, and each filter peels back a layer and reveals the film’s true nature. Some films just don’t have that many layers. One understands why Leap Year was released in January without thinking very much (which, that’s exactly what they want out of you). Likewise 27 Dresses, and (god help us) Bride Wars.

Before I go (I will never get over how I have all this mobility on the web. I can come, go, break the space-time continuum, write to you both in the present and in the past at the same time, all in the space of writing), I want to provide a month-by-month rubric that generally serves as a broad tool for gauging what types of films are released during what time. This will hopefully help you when you see a film getting released and are deciding whether or not to see it in theaters. And it may keep you from asking my opinion on things. You can figure it out yourself, Summer Sanders. You can apply this formula and know, pretty much off the top of your head what I think about this movie (before I see it). Of course, the better you know me, the better you can alter the formula to account for basic human error (as in, “Oh, but it’s a Cage film, so Mike is actually excited about it,” or, “Well, he does like westerns, so even though it’s out in January he’ll see it,” or, “Sure it’s an Oscar film, but its starring Aniston, and he hates that cunt.” I prefer to think of this as human success. Error only implies deviation, which, makes sense for the culture we live in).

But enough about the forumla, let’s get to what we’ve all been waiting for — me pushing the actual analysis of the months until tomorrow.

What, did you really think you were getting this all in one day?

Well, actually, you might have — but then I went and started the article like a standard newspaper writer, which then necessitated that I immediately stray away from that and fuck over my audience as much as possible. Which, might actually make me more like a newspaper man. Whatever. Either way, starting tomorrow, I go through January through June. Because that’ll be enough writing as it is. And you’ll know how to judge a movie that comes out in the first half of the year. And judging is fun.

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